Drugs and music. Music and drugs. Sometimes, they go together. At least, in the popular imagination. If jazz was haunted by heroin, and rock bloomed on acid, and disco darlings preened on cocaine, and ravers got touchy-feely on ecstasy, Lana Del Reyâs recent single, âLove,â sounds like two milligrams of Xanax crushed into dust and set adrift on the Pacific breeze in your mind. âDonât worry, baby,â she sings repeatedly during the balladâs gentle send-off, her voice plunging low, enunciation going slack. Itâs the kind of song that quietly levitates you out of your life, then disappears.
Listening to âLoveâ on Xanax might feel redundant, but in todayâs freaked-out America â where relief-seekers are swallowing opioids and benzodiazepines in record numbers â the connection between our sounds and our substances feels pervasive. When everyone seems to be on drugs, everyoneâs music sounds more and more like pill-pop.
One could argue that drugs and pop have always worked more in parallel than in tandem â both attempt to relieve the symptoms of the era. But much of todayâs pop music explicitly asks to be heard in a pharmacological context. Brand names keep popping up in our singalongs, particularly in rap music, where Xanax, Percocet and other pharmaceuticals have long been praised for their abilities to numb the agony of existence.
The whole of 21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. Itâs a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isnât new, but itâs increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weekndâs demulcent falsetto, in Rihannaâs unruffled cool, in Drakeâs creamier verses, even in Justin Bieberâs buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, itâs most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.
In a way, modern music has always been pill music. Drugs and pop were both permanently stitched into Americaâs cultural fabric shortly after World War II, back when a menu of new psychotropics was being sent to market around the same time rock-and-roll was being born. Both have provided comfort ever since â a parallel that surely isnât lost on Del Rey, whose inconspicuous lullabies frequently conjure the blurry romance of yesteryearâs American Dream.
In rap music, whose artists are more concerned with owning the future, some have aimed to re-create the effects of contemporary psychotropia while others have struggled to quit cold turkey. On his Grammy Award-winning 2016 album, âColoring Book,â Chance the Rapper kicked his Xanax habit in rhyme: âLast year, got addicted to Xans/Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.â On a track from 2014, Schoolboy Q recounted his trials with an entire cabinet of prescription drugs: âPercocets, Adderall, Xanny bars, get codeine involved/Stuck in this body high, canât shake it off.â Last year, Isaiah Rashad rapped with disdain about the Xanax addiction that nearly cost him his career: âPop a Xan, baby. .â.â. Only pop it âcause you heard it in a song.â
And then thereâs Future, the Atlanta rap visionary who might go down as the most avid proponent of pharmaceutical relief in the history of popular song. He has always presented himself as a renegade, but because the drugs heâs allegedly abusing (Xanax, Percocet, Vicodin, Actavis, etc.), are all entirely accessible to non-renegades, Futureâs narco-brags feel more intimate. He brings the frisson of drug danger a little closer â even if he is washing down more pills than the rest of us. âOh, you done did more drugs than me?â he asks on his most recent album. âYou must be hallucinating.â Must be. Even stone sober, itâs easy to fall under the spell of Futureâs dizzy-deep songbook.
More acutely sobering is the role that prescription drugs have played in the deaths of our most beloved pop stars, especially over the past decade. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince each died with painkillers, antianxiety drugs or both coursing through their systems. And because opioids and benzodiazepines are so widely prescribed in tandem, each of these shocking deaths felt strangely familiar. The gods of pop music, indestructible in song, died taking the same drugs that everyone takes.
Regardless of how directly todayâs drugs are altering how todayâs music gets made, they appear to be having a more significant influence on how that music is being heard. As online streaming services gain traction at the center of music culture, they continue to shape our listening habits in ways that feel entirely compatible with a recreational Xanax habit.
Streaming is designed to feel cool and undisruptive. It promises fluid, frictionless listening â an experience that can be entirely predictable, even when you donât know exactly whatâs coming next. Most of the major platformsâ recommendation algorithms are designed to suggest music thatâs similar to what youâre already listening to. Instead of going on a âtrip,â streaming allows you stay put. The sound washes over you, smooth and steady.
In that sense, the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand-in-hand. Crafting a hit single with sleek synthesizers, pillowy electronic drums and Auto-Tuned purrs might be enough to get you in the game, but it isnât enough to win. Dominance belongs to those superstars willing to replicate their softness in abundance, and then roll it out on the streaming platforms â the way that Drake and the Weeknd have each done on their wildly successful, shamelessly overlong albums of late (âMore Lifeâ and âStarboy,â respectively). Instead of forging new sounds or fresh styles, these guys are defining the era by taking leisurely laps back and forth across their respective comfort zones.
Is that such a lazy, unimaginative, horrible thing for a pop star to do? Comfort zones are hard to find in Donald Trumpâs America, and our psychotropic priorities have changed. We used to want to have our minds blown. Now, weâd prefer to have our minds massaged.
Surely, the anxiety-smothering sound of pill-pop is bound to help define this moment in our cultural memory â the same way late-â60s rock-and-roll still pulses like an LSD vision, or the way mid-â80s hair-metal still screams like cocaine. But for now, letâs hope there are some big truths to be found in our pharmaceutical tranquility. Instead of seeking enlightenment through a tab of acid, maybe we can find grace through a pill â or a new Lana Del Rey album.
And if that doesnât suit your taste, or your neurochemistry, stick around. This is America. The government, the drugs and the music all change, in due course.